Saturday, August 28, 2010

Question from Monica - Wolsey and syphilis

Did Wolsey have syphilis? I read that he was accused of trying to infect Henry.

1 comment:

Foose said...

The indictment against Wolsey in 1529 did read "whereas your Grace is our Sovereign Lord and Head, in whom standeth all the surety and wealth of the realm, the same Lord Cardinal knowing himself to have the foul and contagious disease of the great pox broken out upon him in divers places of the body, came daily to your Grace, rowning in your ear, and blowing upon your most noble Grace with his perilous and infected breath, to the marvellous danger of your Highness ... And when he was once healed of them, he made your Grace believe that his disease was an impostume in his head, and of none other thing."

Rowning means whispering, and impostume apparently meant an abscess. There was a belief current in the Renaissance that infections and diseases could be transmitted by breath.

I don't think there's any real evidence that Wolsey had syphilis, although the poet John Skelton included it as another of the Cardinal's malignant characteristics in his poem "Why Come Ye Not to Court," with typical searing invective. Accusing statesmen, nobles, kings, women and your love rival of having the pox was pretty standard in this time period, and facial lesions always gave rise to suspicion. There is some suggestion that Wolsey had had the smallpox or measles and did have some scars.

There was a belief current that infections could be transmitted by breath. The attorney general Christopher Hales drew up the praemunire indictment but I don't know what precisely motivated him (or the king) to include this charge. Possibly the allegation suggests what people really had against the Cardinal: that he had been "breathing poison" in the king's ear for 20 years with what they perceived to be his false and treacherous counsel, infecting the king with dangerous ideas (the Divorce), noxious taxation schemes (the Amicable Grant), repugnant Francophile sentiments (the alliance with France) and unjust suspicion of his loyal nobles (Buckingham).

There's an interesting parallel in Hamlet as explained by Stephen Greenblatt in his book Hamlet in Purgatory -- Hamlet's father has poison literally poured in his ear by his brother:

And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leprous distilment, whose effect
Holds such an enmity with blood of man
That swift as quicksilver it courses through
The natural gates and alleys of the body ...
And a most instant tetter barked about,
Most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust
All my smooth body ...

The "loathsome crust" was a popular Renaissance description of the ravages of syphilis. Hamlet himself is poisoned with distrust and paranoia by the words the Ghost of the poisoned king whispers in his ear; Ophelia is poisoned to madness by Hamlet's cruel taunts in her ears; Polonius winds up dead after he listens to a conversation not meant for his ears; the corpses pile up as a result of the poisoned speech and "infection by ear."